Are you Efficient? Save Time by Applying Lean Thinking to Everyday Life

by Darwin on August 5, 2009

I came across this article today on how Starbucks is implementing industrial engineering principles in their workplace.  While they’re calling it something catchy like LEAN Sigma and utilizing some other Toyota nomenclature (a founding father of modern Quality/Efficiency methods), it’s all based on the same principals – efficient work, parallel path vs. critical path activities, and elimination of waste.

I ordered an ice cream sundae the other day and found myself burning up inside at the insanely inefficient method by which this thing was prepared.

Have you even ordered food somewhere and gauged the efficiency in the food preparation/delivery system?  I ordered an ice cream sundae the other day and found myself burning up inside at the insanely inefficient method by which this thing was prepared.  After taking my order, the employee had to go find a cup several steps to the right, get a scoop several steps to the left, scoop the ice cream, then go about 15 steps behind a counter to add hot fudge and some Reese’s Pieces, come back up the the front again to add the whipped cream, and then go several steps to the right again to get a lid, then come back and ring me up.  This whole exercise probably took about 5 minutes when it should have taken perhaps 1-2 minutes.  Meanwhile, my ice cream’s melted and there’s a line out the door.  This is standard practice at this particular ice cream shop.  It’s not a chain and is a smaller family owned place, and this is probably the way they’ve always done things.  But with a few simple steps, they could easily increase their output, decrease their payroll with fewer employees required while realizing the intangible benefits of more revenue due to people not turning away or leaving the parking lot when they see a line out the door (it’s tough to quantify specifically, but I know I’ve turned around before and I know they’re losing business due to their long queue).  Meanwhile, when I order at a McDonald’s or Dunkin Donuts (I know, not the healthiest choice!), I find their stores to be very standardized and efficient.

The article cites the notion that baristas will no longer be bending over to scoop coffee from below the counter, no more idle moments waiting for expired coffee to drain, etc.  And it’s translating into results!  Here’s what one of the first stores found when they employed the more efficient work principles:

“Between September 2008 and June 2009, her store experienced a 10% increase in transactions. The company says that having food and drinks ready to go quickly can boost traffic because that keeps people from leaving stores.”

Perhaps it’s just the engineer in me where I used to live implementation of lean manufacturing principles, but I find myself always seeing what I view as waste as both a consumer, and in my personal life, and it drives me nuts!

My wife thinks I’m insane. I always say, “Why did you do that in that order? You should have begun the longer lead critical path activity first, then started the parallel path activity.”  She just tells me to shut up. But I can’t help myself.

An example is that when I come downstairs in the morning, some of the activities I need to perform are to: let the dog out, feed the dog, run the coffee maker, make/eat breakfast, check some emails, etc.  I always make it a point to have activities running in parallel.  For me, this means 1) hitting start on the coffee maker, 2) going out with the dog and checking some stats/emails on my new iPhone, 3) throwing my toast in the oven WHILE getting the dog’s food, 4) feeding the dog WHILE my toast is running (he needs his food split in half or he vomits so this takes about 2 minutes), 5) making/eating my breakfast WHILE checking some emails or whatever, 6) pouring the coffee and leaving.

This translates into Efficiency = less time required to get out of the house = more sleep, completing an extra activity, playing with any kids that are up, etc = healthier/happier me.

Now, what if I did things differently – no parallel activities?  The difference between 15 minutes downstairs and 30 minutes downstairs is over an hour a week or time I get back that wasn’t wasted.

This simple example pervades my everyday life.  If I have to sit on a ridiculous automated menu with my cable company (see my Comcast Bill savings to the tune of $250/year), redeeming credit card cash back rewards (free money) or whatever, I get my phone earpiece and do the call WHILE doing something else rather than sitting down slamming my fist at the stupid menu and wasted time.  I’ll go do dishes, clean up the house, take out the trash, or whatever, while waiting on hold and punching through menu items (by the way, try out gethuman to automatically bypass the automated menu and get to an operator quickly for many companies).

Batch Processing for Efficiency

Another efficiency method I utilize is batch processing.  Rather than perform a single activity several times, I like to wait as long as possible and bundle my efforts into one session and bang it out quickly.  An example is paying bills.  Each time I have to pay bills, I need to get out the check book, the calculator, a pen, sometimes stamps/return address labels, log on to my online bank account and go through the motions.  All the prep work eats up 5 minutes or so each time and I gain efficiency by paying 15 bills or so at one time rather than 3-4 bills 4-5 times per month.  Rather than paying bills each week, I do it once per month.  I had my credit card companies coordinate due dates so they’re all due in the middle of the month.  Most of my other bills fall there as well.  I get paid at the end of the month.  So, early each month, I update my checkbook with my new balance, write in all my outgoing payments, ensure my checkbook has adequate funds at the end, login and enter all the payments.  I close by mailing any one-time bills.  I then go and file any tax-related receipts from medical expenses for my end of year flexible spending account payback.

I probably save myself an hour a month on this simple activity.  My life is filled with such activities though.  From work to blogging to getting the kids out the door to running errands, by exercising some basic Industrial Engineering concepts and bundling activities via batch processing, I’m probably saving myself over 5 hours a week or more.  This is 5 hours of my life back, to do whatever I want.

What are your thoughts on efficiency?

Is your workplace efficient?

Do you have efficiency ideas that save you time on everyday tasks?

Do you routinely see an inefficient process that drives you nuts?

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Carnival of Personal Finance #217: The French Money Quotes Edition — Almost Frugal- a frugal blog
August 10, 2009 at 7:24 am

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1 Funny about Money August 10, 2009 at 9:22 am

I do the same “parallel” activities with the dog, the breakfast, the e-mail, the watering, the pool cleaning, and the various other chores. The term that comes to my mind is “multitasking,” and it drives me screaming BATS!!!

Far from feeling efficient, it leaves me feeling frazzled, with 15 gerjillion things going on at the same time — microwave dinging at me, teapot whistling at me, dog yapping at me, dryer buzzer yelling at me, dirty dishes accumulating on the drainboard, watering timers bumping off and needing to be reset…gaaaaahhhhhhhh! IMHO, it’s far better for your mental health to do One. Thing. At. A. Time.

Uh oh. That reminds me: gotta fly out and wash the car before the sun gets any higher!
.-= Funny about Money´s last blog ..RIP $64 butternut squash =-.


2 Jim August 10, 2009 at 1:31 pm

Great article.

One way I try and be efficient is by automating tasks. For example our coffee maker is on an automatic timer so its waiting for me in the morning. I also do as much automatic bill payment as possible.

I batch process by making all my weekly lunches at the same day. Takes about 5 minutes total that way.

One thing that irritates me at work is the layout of the sandwich bar in the cafe. They have items laid out in this order: bread, plates, condiments, meats. The first thing you get is the plate then the bread so you have go go one direction then back track to get to the condiments. They should swap the plates and the bread.
.-= Jim´s last blog ..Is the Southwest Rapid Rewards Visa card a Good Deal? =-.


3 The Frugal New Yorker August 10, 2009 at 1:52 pm

I’ve found that the more time you “save” through efficiency measures like this, the more there is to do. The idea that “Efficiency = less time required to get out of the house = more sleep, completing an extra activity, playing with any kids that are up, etc = healthier/happier me” is, I believe, misguided.

50 years ago offices had no computers, no internet, no overnight deliveries–and yet we now work longer hours than ever. The fact that we are sleeping less and feel like we have less time for fun activities is due to our mindset, not to how efficient we are. We are so obsessed with speed that we are never satisfied and feel as if there aren’t enough hours in the day. I think it is better to allocate your time in a steadier, more measured fashion, rather than trying to rush through everything.
.-= The Frugal New Yorker´s last blog ..Time Management: A Better Way =-.


4 Revanche August 10, 2009 at 2:28 pm

This sort of thinking is what gets dinner on the table in 20-30 minutes instead of an hour. I usually plan ahead so that I’m prepping ingredients for the next two stages of cooking while the current stage is cooking/roasting/whatever. The order in which the courses are cooked are nested: main course usually takes the most prep time and cooking time, so that’s started first. If the side dishes require some of the same ingredients as the main course, all of those are minced, chopped, sliced or peeled at the same time and divided up in separate dishes. Occasionally, a side dish requires more cook time: that’s fine, it goes on the stove first. I think of it as nested cooking: every dish is completed with minutes of each other and the total time required is much less than if you were to cook each dish, start to finish, one after the other.

I practice it during the day as well, “nesting” my activities so that things that can run without attention do so while I do other things. ie: making sure that I get laundry into the washer before sorting the next load and vacuuming, transferring clothes to the dryer before cleaning the bathroom, etc. Keeps things quite a lot more efficient and I usually finish before my energy runs out.
.-= Revanche´s last blog ..Carnival of Personal Finance =-.


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